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"Who decides what's in the best interests of the child--the parent or the government and its institutions?"
"The Fourteenth Amendment protects the citizen against the
state itself and all of its creatures -- Boards of Education not
&endash; U.S. Supreme Court, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 1943
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A Critical View of this Legislation:
The PRRA states that "no Federal, State, or local government, or any official of such a government acting under color of law, shall interfere with or usurp the right of a parent to direct the upbringing of the child of the parent." Under this bill, parents could sue in state or federal court any government entity that they feel interferes with their control of the education, medical care, discipline, or religious teaching of their children. Under this broad rubric, virtually every decision of public schools, libraries, health and welfare programs, and some significant case law regarding parental withholding of medical treatment would be subject to legal challenge. This legislation mirrors efforts in several states to codify "parental rights" through both legal and legislative channels.
The usual right,wing proponents (plus various home-schoolers' organizations and church schools), bemoaning "increasing government intervention into family life," believe that any law or regulation that affects "parental rights" is invalid. Reading this legislation is a stark reminder of the right-wing ideology that children are literally possessions of their parents. Greg Erken, executive director of Of the People, the conservative organization leading the push for "parental rights" legislation at the state level, bluntly states that these laws are necessary "to challenge outcome.based education and condom distribution in public schools, to stop the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Children, and to restrict or remove materials from public libraries."
Erken is absolutely correct. The PRRA would nullify the right of older minors to receive comprehensive health care. Many states have passed legislation granting teenagers the right to receive comprehensive confidential health care, including AIDS testing and treatment for sexually transmitted disease-care they might not seek if forced to obtain parental permission to do so.
These are only a few of the possible applications of "parental rights" legislation. Concerns have also been raised regarding possible challenges to both mandatory childhood immunizations and child-labor laws. And, clearly, any law which forbids "interference" with a parent's complete control of a child's medical care and "religious instruction" will preclude any intervention when parents choose to withhold appropriate medical treatment or to apply "treatment methods" which themselves cause injury or death. Legitimate concerns are also raised by the PRRA's specific approval of corporal punishment and the fact that supporters vehemently opposed an eventually successful amendment exempting demonstrable child abuse or neglect (an exemption not found in at least two of the latest state versions).
Certainly we would not dispute the primary role of parents in the care, upbringing, and education of their children. But it's the same old story: PRRA proponents aren't satisfied with forbidding just their own children to read certain books in the school library; they demand that the books be removed from the library completely, forbidding them to all the children of the school. In other words, contrary to what they say, these people don't want to take responsibility for providing guidance and establishing control of what their children see, hear, and read. They want the government to enforce their judgments for them-by law-upon everyone's children.
Making it possible for parents to sue a school district for violating their right to direct their child's education has horrifying implications. Public schools would be obligated to excuse students from any course to which parents object and to provide acceptable alternative curricula or reading materials. At last count, Phyllis Schlafly's list (published in the Eagle Forum newsletter) of dangerous topics from which parents should protect their children in public schools included over 90 entries. This list, begun over 14 years ago, has come to include just about everything: creative problem solving, critical thinking, divorce, witchcraft, male/female roles, an array of historical facts and events, a long list of classic novels, overpopulation, evolution, and so on ad infinitum. Teachers would be forced to utilize only the most bland teaching materials in order to avoid lawsuits, seriously compromising the quality of public education, which is already suffering significantly under the attacks of these same right-wing censors.
California's Assembly Bill 2248 goes even further. Though parents in that state already have the option of removing their children from certain classes of which they disapprove, this new bill would mandate that no student-even in high school-could attend any sex or AIDS education program without the direct, advance permission of a parent. That requirement would make it cumbersome for schools to provide programs in health education. Furthermore, the bill would financially penalize schools that allowed any student to attend without such express permission.
In this "parental rights" movement, we are confronted, once again, with the prevailing right-wing notion that, because public education isn't religious, it's anti-religious. This is why critics of the movement continue to warn that the PRRA and its like could violate the principle of church-state separation by requiring government support of private religious education. After all, if the public schools are violating "parental rights," then some parents might argue that turning to the private sector is their only option. Private school vouchers could even be declared a "parental right." Or mandatory education itself might be seen as an "interference" between parent and child.
That these concerns are no alarmist fantasies was made clear on May 2, 1996, when Clint Bolick, litigation director of the Institute for Justice, spoke to the issue during a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He said:
If you put it in terms of who should be sovereign over children-parents or some state government bureaucracy-you win the battle pretty niftily, and then you just ease on in to choosing where a kid goes to school.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Catholic Conference, in its recently issued pamphlet, Principles for Educational Reform in the United States, declares that parental rights are natural and inalienable. Parents have the right to choose the kind of education best suited to the needs of their children, and they should not be burdened economically for choosing a private or religious school in the exercise of this fundamental right.
The pamphlet further argues that government should provide "assistance" so that parents might better enjoy this "right."
But wouldn't the First Amendment prevent such an interpretation? Not if Of the People gets its way. The organization is pushing for a Parental Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that reads simply: "The right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children shall not be infringed."
It seems "parental rights" advocates are also convinced that various child, protection laws are a conspiracy to remove children from Christian homes, bring them under government control, and brainwash them-another vicious tactic in the persecution of Christians in America. In order to protect themselves, they say, "parental rights" legislation must be enacted-laws which essentially scrap the long-standing "best interest of the child" legal standard in favor of virtually "anything goes" parenting.
In this regard, a proposed amendment to the California state constitution is ominously clear in its wording. It holds that parents have the "fundamental right to control the care and custody of their minor children, including control over education, discipline, religious and moral instruction, health and psychological and emotional well, being of the child."
Thus, while nominally seeking to protect families from unwarranted governmental interference, these proposed laws ignore the rights of children and leave federal, state, and local governments vulnerable to time-consuming and costly litigation, even when they are acting in a child's and community's best interest. "There's a very free line between the rights of parents and the rights of children," says Shirley Igo, vice-president for legislation for the National Parent-Teacher Association. "We're strong advocates for parental responsibility and involvement, but this tips the balance where only parents' rights are protected."
Such legislation as the PRRA is also intended to provide legal support for other proposed laws, such as Washington State's "Becca Law," which would have allowed parents to involuntarily commit their children to rehabilitation centers or psychiatric hospitals with virtually no judicial review. Fortunately for our state's young people, this law was recently ruled unconstitutional by the Washington State Supreme Court. But similar efforts are being launched in other states.
Opposition to the PRRA and its relatives is being mobilized. Medical associations, churches, children's advocacy groups, and women's rights groups are organizing, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association of School Administrators, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Child Welfare League of America, the Women's Legal Defense Fund, the American Jewish Committee, United Methodist Church, the National PTA, and the National Education Association. People for the American Way is organizing activist opposition on the national front.
As usual, this is scary stuff. But it's hardly out of character as right.wing tactics go. Civil-rights activists may feel overwhelmed, but we must persist in opposing every one of these maneuvers. What other choice do we have?
By Barbara Dority
Barbara Dority is president of Humanists of Washington, executive director of the Washington Coalition Against Censor, ship, and cochair of the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce.
Copyright of Humanist is the property of American Humanist Association and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use. Source: Humanist, Sep/Oct96, Vol. 56 Issue 5, p37, 2p.
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A Supportive View of the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act:
Recently, there has been a surge of protest in educational circles over the pending congressional Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act.
The act protects "the fundamental right of a parent to direct the upbringing of a child." The hostility with which the bill has been received among educators is, unfortunately, a prime example of the mutual distrust separating parents from the professionals to whom they once looked for help with childrearing.
School administrators insist that children increasingly need protection from the circumscribing influences of ignorant and backward mothers and fathers who, they insist, would "raise total havoc with the curriculum." Parents contend otherwise. They've become more convinced that children need protection from the experiments of arrogant and irresponsible educators.
So who's right? In my view, parents. August W. Steinhilber, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, charges that if the bill passes, we'll have parents censoring Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet because it deals with "teenage sex." Yet for the past three years I've been traveling around the country talking with parents about the challenges of raising children in the 1990s and in that time, not one parent has ever complained of too much Shakespeare in the classroom. (Quite the opposite!)
Parents have complained about too many "life skills" programs. They insist that the relentless assault on parental authority and family values in these courses is one major and vastly ignored cause of the declining well-being of children. These parents say that in an age of moral decay and family breakdown, the schools should be supporting the strongest possible parental engagement in raising children.
Parents have also expressed concern about what they consider an increasingly reckless use of psychotherapy in education. Consider the case of Jason Newkirk, a third grader at the Whitehills Elementary Schools in East Lansing, Mich. In 1990, Jason's teacher sent him to the school counselor, Michael Fink, ostensibly to play checkers. But Mr. Fink did more than that. He subjected the boy - who apparently had social problems - to psychiatric treatment using a method for which he had not been professionally trained.
This went against an explicit request by Jason's parents not to counsel the boy. When Jason's parents found out what was happening, they confronted the school administration, but the school refused to order the counseling sessions suspended. It also withheld any information about the sessions from the Newkirks.
The Newkirks - who had to engage a psychiatrist for Jason as a result of anxieties caused by the sessions - sued the school district. The Western District of Michigan court and the Sixth Circuit court ruled that the school did not violate any established right of the parents in performing its so-called "mental health treatments" on the boy over his parents objections.
An unusual case of educational malpractice? The Newkirks' experience is probably more common than one would think. Last year, my fourth-grade daughter came home from her suburban Connecticut middle school in tears, asking to be removed from a weekly class "meeting" we never knew existed. She said she had to tell us what happened, even though the counselor had admonished the children never to tell their parents what goes on in these encounter sessions.
That day the counselor had played a group-dynamic game with the children, in which they were to state the "qualities" they believed they had. Most of the children said things like, "I'm athletic," or "I'm musical." But one sensitive, hyperactive boy blurted out, "I guess I'm annoying." The class whooped and cheered.
The counselor responded by asking the children to name ways in which the boy was annoying. She then enjoined the class "to think up ways" in which they "could help him to be less annoying." My daughter said the attendant "roast" lasted 10 minutes, during which time she watched in growing consternation as the child dissolved into tremors.
The slippery legal context in which such potentially destructive psycho-dynamic exercises are pursued in classrooms and counseling offices makes it nearly impossible for parents to protect their children. Indeed, under the auspices of life-skills curriculum, children have been psychoanalyzed, hypnotized, and interrogated on private matters - often by individuals who have no therapeutic credentials whatsoever.
Educators also have subjected students to sexually vulgar demonstrations and materials without parental knowledge or recourse, and they have recruited children for a variety of arguable causes, from sexual diversity to radical environmentalism.
The Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act isn't the first congressional legislation that has attempted to address what has become a widespread problem of child exploitation in the schools. The Grassley amendment to the Goals 2000 bill and the Family Privacy Protection Act also have tried to attack this problem.
This particular bill, however, has more comprehensive legal implications. It might effectively grant parents substantive rights to review and reject controversial school programs.
Educators are rightfully anxious about the bill. If the hundreds of parents I've talked to are representative (and I suspect they are), then its passage would likely result in some hefty challenges to the educational establishment, namely, a consolidated effort to turn the focus of the educational enterprise away from experiments in psychosocial engineering and toward a more concerted academic mission.
Recently I heard the mother of a 13-year-old public school student complain that a 40-minute period of his L.I.F.E. course at school (the acronym stands for "Learning, Interaction, Feelings and Experiences," an apparently mandatory course) was devoted to a discussion of sexual foreplay. "What he doesn't know yet is what a preposition is," she commented. "For that, I'm hiring a tutor at $50 an hour." If the Parental Rights bill gets passed, that mother may soon be saving herself a lot of money.
By Dana Mack
Dana Mack is an affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Values, a New York-based family- and social-policy research organization. She is the author of "The Assault on Parenthood," forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.
Copyright of Christian Science Monitor is the property of Christian Science Publishing Society and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use. Source: Christian Science Monitor, 5/28/96, Vol. 88 Issue 127, p19.
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